Friday, May 25, 2007

The Antikythera Mechanism And Intelligent Design: A Response To Egnor

As the late Stephen J. Gould once commented on reading the “scientific” arguments creationists put forth, he didn’t know “whether to laugh or to cry”. I found myself reacting similarly upon reading Michael Egnor’s latest attempt to use archaeological science in support of Intelligent Design. And once again, like every attempt at the “archaeologists seek design” analogy, Egnor’s fails because A) he gets his facts wrong; B) he completely misrepresents archaeological method and theory; and C) fails to understand the implications of ID’s real analogy with archaeology.

Egnor uses the Antikythera Mechanism as an example of detecting “intelligent” design. The Antikythera Mechanism, when recovered in 1901 from the submerged wreckage of a Roman merchant ship dated to approximately 65 BCE, appeared as little more than a series of bronze wheels and other fragments, all badly corroded. It remained largely unstudied until the 1950s through 1970s, when Derek De Solla Price studied the fragments extensively, particularly as more advanced radiography techniques became available. It was clear to Price that the bronze gear fragments were part of a machine apparatus, the purpose of which was not well established although Price’s reconstruction suggested it was used as an astronomical calculator. Egnor of course wants his audience to see the “detecting design” part of the story: here is a case of archaeologists detecting intelligent design and making no illusions about it. Egnor then wonders why biologists can’t accept (like their archaeologist brethren) that design exists in the natural world and move on. However, like all intelligent design arguments, Egnor’s requires that knowledge be incomplete in order to pull the story together:

Archeologists believe that the technology to produce such a device didn’t emerge until at least the 14th century A.D. They have no evidence as to who designed it, and no evidence even of who could have designed it. Yet the inference to design is obvious, and no archeologist doubts that it is a designed artifact. Design can be inferred from an artifact alone, regardless of the obscurity or the implausibility of a designer. [emphasis in the original].

First, we can assume that what is not reported in an Evolution News &Views story is usually far more intriguing than what actually makes it to website and Egnor has once again proven that assumption correct. Egnor pulled the 14th century A.D. date largely out of his ID hat of unsubstantiated facts. Current thoughts on the Mechanism’s dating suggests a manufacturing date of 100-150 BCE, with statements that nothing with its complexity occurs until almost a millennium later. By my calculation, that means closer to the 9th century A.D. (and if you are about to argue that an error of five hundred years is not a big deal, then we’ll need to have a serious discussion on the implications of 9th versus 10th century dates in the Holy Land).

Egnor then goes on to report that archaeologists “…have no evidence as to who designed it, and no evidence of who could have designed it”. Completely false. Convenient for an ID argument that relies on lack of knowledge, but a purely fabricated statement on Egnor’s part. At the most basic level we of course know it was humans who manufactured the mechanisms parts – because archaeologists know all about bronze and metal working during the first few centuries BCE (and for some time before and after that period!). But in the case of the Mechanism we can get even more specific. Evidence points to it being quite clearly Greek in origin, and probably from the island of Rhodes. We can even state with some confidence that it may have been designed by someone of the Hipparchos school during that time; Hipparchos being the great Greek astronomer from the very period when the Mechnism was constructed who probably died and was buried on Rhodes. In fact, such ideas regarding its origin have been bantered around for more than a decade. If you read some of the original Nature articles on the Mechanism (sorry, no direct link) especially Charette (2006), it is highly probable it was connected with Hipparchos in some way, in particular because it is in part a “mechanical realization” of a lunar geometrical model originally developed by the great astronomer himself. And how do we know this? Because archaeologists and historians have not ended their search with “it’s designed”. A number of hypotheses have been generated regarding its origins and its function. Price’s was not the only reconstruction – there have been several, including a more recent reconstruction by a combined British, Greek and American team. All are hypotheses built upon each other, using the most current data and observations and tested to reach the best explanation to account for the evidence. That process is unheard of in intelligent design. Egnor is creating illusions: there’s no revelation here that serves as an analogy to ID’s “unnamed Designer”…

Finally, let’s get something straight: archaeology is about understanding past human behavior, not artifact collecting. Egnor would probably make a great pot-hunter because all he understands is that ancient people made things that we can pick up today. That is the extent of Egnor’s inquisitiveness in the matter. But archaeologists don’t excavate things …we excavate information – information used to test ideas about the ultimate archaeological goal: how did the artifact “designers” behave and why did their behavior change through time. And more importantly we continue to test the designers’ behaviors and motivation. And archaeology is not in the business of detecting “design”… we know all about design, but for one reason only: we’ve observed, documented and tested the designer over and over again, from two and a half million years ago, when the ape-like designer first started making simple stone tools, to watching modern hunter-gatherer designers develop their own archaeological patterns today. And guess what?: those archaeological “designers” that Egnor and other ID advocates want to incorporate into their arguments? They were constrained and molded by the same evolutionary forces of contingency ID advocates so despise as an explanation for the world around us.

Archaeology doesn’t detect design;
Archaeologists gather data and test hypotheses:
Archaeology’s goal is to test hypotheses about the designers;
Archaeology shows that the designers are constrained by evolutionary contingency, just like squid, tigers and mammoths;

Doesn’t sound like intelligent design to me.


RBH said...

Lemme understand this. The Antikythera mechanism was (a) found in association with a known human structure (a sunken ship); (b) contains parts that humans are known to produce (gears, etc.); is made of a material known to be available to humans of the time (bronze); and (d) appears to perform a comprehensible function that would be useful to the humans of the time who were in the vicinity (and for whose existence in the vicinity there is independent evidence). In addition, there is background knowledge that allows hypotheses, or at least conjectures, about the specific humans who designed and made it. And for Egnor that process resembles ID's "design detection"? In a pig's eye. He is literally worse than the dumbest creationist.

Anonymous said...

The fact remains that EVEN IF the Antiketheria mechanism WASN'T found in in association with known possible human designers (e.g. what if it was found on Mars) that it would STILL be accepted by everyone (including anti-creationists) as evidence of intelligent design by an intelligent designer. Hense the point point by Egnor that
design can be inferred from an object alone, regardless of the obscurity or the implausibility of a designer is still a valid one.

Anonymous said...

Obrien needs to get his story straignt:

He states:
"It was clear to Price that the bronze gear fragments were part of a machine apparatus, the purpose of which was not well established although Price’s reconstruction suggested it was used as an astronomical calculator. Egnor of course wants his audience to see the “detecting design” part of the story: here IS A CASE OF ARCHAEOLOGISTS DETECTING intelligent DESIGN and making no illusions about it. Egnor then wonders why biologists can’t accept(LIKE THEIR ARCHAEOLOGIST BRETHREN)that design exists in the natural world and move on. . . "

Then later he states:
"Archaeology DOESN'T detect design; .. ."

Christopher O'Brien said...

Anonymous - in regard to your first comment: you missed the point entirely, which is typically of the desperate need for creationists to prove their creator exists. We know it was designed BECAUSE we understand the nature of the designer and can investigate the methods and processes that led to its creation. Detecting design is only useful in the context of understanding the designer; if you want ID to supplant Darwinian evolution then you need to precisely define when and where and under what circumstances the designer intervenes; how does the designer intervene?; why does the designer intervene?; by what methods does a designer, design?

As for your second comment...learn to fucking read! If you understood the nature of "context" you'd know I was referring to Egnor's insistence that archaeologists detect design. My point is that archaeologists DO NOT detect design...for Christ's sake, stop taking things out of context.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Obrien:
I teach an environmental science couse at Watervliet Jr./Sr. HS and went to use an article you had written for Safari Magazine entitled "Turning the Tables on Animal Rights: A View From Prehistory" that I obtained from Dr. David Samuel through a wildlife management course at West Virginia University. However, my copy is unreadable and i would like to see if it is possible to obtain a copy from you. I can be reached through my own blog at or at

Thank you in advance

Joseph R. Cea